Column – Case of the missing rabbits has a prime suspect

Published 7:25 pm Tuesday, October 3, 2023

I hadn’t thought about coyotes for a long time until all the rabbits disappeared this summer.

We have seen a rabbit occasionally during the past five decades, but during the past couple of years, we have had an increasing number of rabbits in the yard. It seemed they had discovered the patches of wild clover to be to their liking, and the population increased. 

By this summer, we had a dozen or more that had staked out various bushes as a home and could be seen most any day nibbling away. We did have to enclose the cucumber vines in a cage, and a few low-hanging tomatoes got eaten, but other than that, they minded their own business, doing what rabbits do — eating, sleeping and reproducing.

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Then, one morning in August, they didn’t show up. None of them. That evening, same thing. No rabbits. We had come to enjoy their company as did the grandchildren as well as two visiting great-nephews from out West. But suddenly, they were just gone.

That’s when I remembered that Isle of Wight is now home to coyotes, has been for several decades, and I became convinced that coyotes had found our rabbits. Not that they hadn’t been preyed upon before. Our ancient cat loves rabbit and when she gets a burst of energy, she’ll hunt down a new crop of babies and have rabbit for dinner. It hasn’t seemed to hurt the population, and she’s always extremely happy with herself over a kill, so we’ve just tolerated the losses.

This was different. The whole colony — if that’s the proper word — was gone, and I suspected it had been wiped out by coyotes.

I had written about coyotes about 25 years ago when several of them paid us a visit in the wee hours of a summer night. Their distinctive yelp woke us up with a start. The cat we had at that time survived the visit and we didn’t think any more about it.

Over the years, I even came to appreciate a coyote population, at least somewhat, because I believed, as have others, that small deer are a favored part of the coyote diet and that these western predators can thin a herd. I figured anything that would reduce the overpopulation of deer in and around Smithfield was a pretty good thing.

Dr. Jim Parkhurst of Virginia Tech, in a paper titled “The Coyote in Virginia,” says that’s pretty much a myth. Coyotes will eat deer meat but won’t go to a lot of trouble to secure it. A weak or sickly fawn might be a target, and they dearly love roadkill. The favored diet of coyotes is moles, voles, groundhogs, mice, quail, wild turkeys, chickens, skunks, raccoons and, yes, rabbits. 

Reading Parkhurt’s essay left me with the impression that coyotes eat mostly what we wish they wouldn’t. That too misinterprets the facts, it seems. While preparing this column, I ran into local naturalist Bob Clontz. He says coyotes actually do ground birds a favor by eating their primary predators, skunks and raccoons. All a part of the food chain.

Parkhurst traced the animal’s migration here. He says the coyotes along the East Coast are a hybrid of western coyotes. These adaptive and resilient predators started moving eastward a little over a century ago. One group, from the northern plains, moved toward New England and along the way interbred with gray wolves. Another segment of the western population moved into the South and interbred with red wolves. That’s the batch that found its way into Virginia. I guess that means we have super coyotes in our midst.

And they’re here to stay. Virginia lists them as a “nuisance,” and they can be hunted or trapped any time of year with no limits. And control is necessary, particularly if you raise cattle or sheep, because coyotes find herds of both attractive targets, particularly during the birthing season.

While hunting and trapping are favored control methods, more exotic approaches seem to work well for some herders. They place a donkey, mule or llama in among the herd. Once these animals have acclimated themselves to their new neighbors, they can become quite protective and will drive off coyotes.

Despite efforts to control them, however, coyotes seem always to bounce back, according to Parkhurst.

Interestingly, a few rabbits have returned to the yard during the past week, leading me to further speculate that while some were probably killed, others were scared off and are slowly returning. If that’s what happened, it will likely happen again. Meanwhile, it’s nice to have them back.

A final note. Coyotes are naturally timid and will generally run from humans, however, they are wild animals, not pets. If they are fed and encouraged to remain around a house, they can become dependent on humans and less predictable. And, like foxes and raccoons, they can contract rabies. So, for a variety of reasons they’re best left alone.

(Note: For those with more interest in coyotes, a Google search for “Coyotes in Virginia” will lead to several publications.)


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is